Sogalikas: Sugar Maker Moon

native maple squirrel tradition

With the most recent new moon on April 5, 2019 in Sokwakik, we are now well into Sogalikas, the Sugar Maker Moon. Climate change has brought an earlier spring in recent years, shifting the time of sap harvest back toward Mozokas, but there is still some overlap, and the further north one travels, the longer the season persists. The Abenaki annual cycle is flexible and can be adjusted to reflect present realities… perhaps Mozokas will have a different face some day.

Agwa – “it is said” – that Native people learned of this delicious source of energy from the red squirrel nation, observing them nip off the end bud of a maple twig and drinking the sap that flowed from the tip. Following this example, a slanting cut was made in the bark of the tree as the days grew warmer from the strengthening return of kizos (the sun), and fitted with a shaped piece of bark or wood to direct the sweet water toward a bark container. The sap was boiled down in a large wooden trencher using red-hot stones.

Written historical accounts state that the first maple sugaring performed by  British settlers – in the person of Alexander Kathan – within what is now Vermont, took place at Sweet Tree Farm on Route 5 in Dummerston, just north of Wantastegok/Brattleboro and adjacent to the Kwenitekw/Connecticut River. The new arrivals would have learned this skill from the indigenous Sokwakiak, and most likely appropriated an existing sugar orchard for the purpose. Sugaring still takes place at the farm today.

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Rev. Ezra Stiles Visits Wantastegok, 1763

ezra stiles diary excerpt

From Rev. Ezra Stiles’ travel diary, circa 1764, recounting a visit to the confluence of the Wantastekw/West River and Kwenitekw/Connecticut River. He traveled widely and recorded faithfully. This excerpt is from a trip up from his home base in Connecticut state, to scout what became the chartered town of Wilmington, VT. Note his references to particulars: There is no underbrush. White Ash trees 100 feet to the limbs and 4-5 feet in diameter at the base.

How did this happen? Indigenous people practiced a sophisticated permaculture. A nuanced, sustainable forest management regimen – working with water, fire, topography, seasonal changes, succession. This was and is not happenstance, circumstantial, or the divine gift of god. This is demonstrable evidence of reciprocal relationship in motion, the give and take of constant creation.

K8g8gwibakw: the Wintergreen, Teaberry, or Checkerberry

wintergreen-brattleboro-vt-nov

Many are familiar with this cheerful, diminutive forest creeper (Gaultheria procumbens); it’s often one of the few wild plants the average contemporary northeasterner can identify. I grew up knowing this tiny relative, taught by my grandparents about its wonderful aroma as we picked a leaf or a berry to chew on while we walked in the pine barrens and oak scrub of eastern Long Island (NY). That it was growing under pine and oak is a good reminder of its preference for acidic soils. It is a readily encountered neighbor here in Sokwakik as well, in the hills above the Kwenitekw under similar conditions.wintergreen-hinsdale-2018

The name wintergreen is easily understood: the shiny, leathery leaves are evergreen year-round and it also holds its berries through the snow. Though a little dry, the berries have the same eponymous “oil of wintergreen” flavor as the leaves. The scent of this essential oil is primarily due to methyl salicylate, which metabolizes to salicylic acid, a common non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). This is the same compound derived from aspirin, which is acetylsalicylic acid.  As a medicinal tea, it is best known for pain relief – an analgesic  for rheumatic symptoms, headache, fever, sore throat, and various aches and pains, along with treating kidney ailments and as a blood tonic. Otherwise, leaves are used traditionally for tea as a beverage and for flavoring in cooking. The berries are, of course, an edible nibble food much of the year.

Other common names are: teaberry, for the above reasons, and also the source of the name of Clarke’s Teaberry chewing gum – another fond childhood memory associated with my grandparents; checkerberry, for the red fruit’s fancied resemblance to that of the Old World chequer tree (Sorbus torminalis), but the resemblance ends there; partridgeberry, a common name I prefer to use for Mitchella repens, which is often found in damp sites under conifers – often hemlock; and boxberry, which seems to be provoked by another awkward fancied resemblance to the European Box tree (Buxus sempervirens), which has evergreen leaves in a somewhat similar shape, but again, the resemblance ends there.

wintergreen-chesterfield-2018

The urn-shaped, downturned flowers of waxy white (sometimes pinkish) appear pendant below the leaves in June or July and mature into bright red berries (10 mm) in late summer or autumn. Often it is the berries that catch one’s eyes first. While an extensive spread of wintergreen may appear to be a collective of happily cohabiting individuals, the colony may actually be a clonal extension of a single plant, spreading by shallow rhizomes beneath the forest duff. Also, these short (5-20 cm) clumping plants are classified as a sub-shrub similar to many other members of the heath family, and not as a tender herb, due to the woody nature of the lower stems. Not all wintergreen is found under the forest canopy; they may also be found out in the open if the soil is acidic enough, and may turn a deep wine red (pigments known as anthocyanins) as a protective measure against strong sunlight.

wintergreen-wantastiquet-early-spring-2018

The Abenaki name for wintergreen is k8g8gwibakw or k8g8gowibakw. There are a couple of ways to understand the meanings, and thus the inspiration for the naming. Gordon Day gives the translation variously (keep in mind that “k” is often interchanged with “g”, especially with Day’s orthography) in his dictionary as:

  • g8g8gowibagw – a sawtoothed leaf (the wintergreen plant)
  • g8g8gowizak – little sawtoothed ones (a variant for wintergreen)
  • g8g8gw8bagwiz- little sawtooth leaf (alternate name for wintergreen)
  • g8gowibagw – a dentate leaf (a wintergreen plant)

Here, “g8g8g-” means sawtoothed or dentate, describing the leaf margin; “-owi-” creates an adverbial form, in the sawtooth way; and “-bagw” describes a leaf, and a plant by extension. And indeed the leaf is sawtoothed, although very subtly (see photos above); each marginal tooth actually has a very small hair or spine, which may suggest the root “g8wi-” also, which signifies a thorn, or pricker, or quill (as with a porcupine).

Interestingly, the Penobscot name for wintergreen is kαkάkəwipakʷ which is raven[berry]plant, from kάkαko – the word for raven. The inspiration here is that the berries serve as food for the ravens, who are also frequenting the pine-covered mountainsides. Thus, the words for wintergreen in the two closely related languages (Western and Eastern Abenaki/Penobscot) are near-homophones, but with 2 different points of origin. It is thought the raven’s name is onomatopoetic, simulating its call. It is interesting that the raven also has a sawtoothed ruff of feathers at its throat. Other languages assign ravenberry to a different plant, red bearberry being one. There are many different trails to arrive at a destination.

 

 

Gipsy Ground Audio at Harris Hill

abenaki camp 1860 crop

From the Brattleboro Words Project website, at the bottom of the Harris Hill site-specific page (scroll down)… An audio track contributed to the multiple layers at this place. Much has been seen here, in the thousands of years it has been a dwelling place; beneath the feet of the ski jump visitors lies a long line of stories.

Podcast here: The Gipsy Ground by Rich Holschuh. Produced by Reggie Martell.

Much more info here, at another Sokoki Sojourn post.

Hydroland: an Interview About the Vernon Dam’s Cultural Impacts

A well-crafted video project put together by two Brattleboro Union High School  (BUHS) students – Forest Zabriskie and Mason Redfield – for a recent class assignment.

To gather varied perspectives on the utilization of the Connecticut River – specifically the circa 1909 Vernon dam at the Great Bend in Sokwakik – they interviewed Matthew Cole, Community Relations for Great River Hydro (dam owner and operator); Kathy Urffer, River Steward for the Connecticut River Conservancy; and yours truly, for an Abenaki cultural viewpoint.

There are many ways to be in the world…

Pia8dagos: Makes Branches Fall Into Pieces Moon

The second month of the Abenaki annual cycle has begun. The new moon following Alamikos (also known as  Anhaldamawikizos) occurred on February 4, 2019 here in Sokwakik. In Western Abenaki, Pia8dagos means “makes branches fall into pieces” or ‘falling in pieces branches maker.” Last night’s windstorm made the reasoning abundantly clear.

The Gipsy (Gypsy) Ground

grau map 1860 gipsy grounds cedar street

Dr. C.W. Grau area map, circa 1860 from Old Maps

Charles William Grau was a noted physician first at Brattleboro’s Wesselhoeft Water-Cure (1848), followed by the Lawrence Water-Cure (1853), and later in private practice. A key ingredient of his naturopathic treatment regimen was extensive outdoor exposure, in the form of walks, and drives. To encourage and facilitate the practice, he became a skilled cartographer, preparing detailed maps of nearby paths, roads, and scenic features for devotees.

On his large area map, there is a dotted line going north-south, connecting Western Avenue with Asylum Street, and intersecting the latter between the Retreat proper and the Retreat Farm. Just a trail or footpath at the time, this was to become today’s Cedar Street. Upon the area immediately south of the Farm and west of the Retreat is a two-word legend cryptically stating “Gypsy Grounds.” This is the land at the base of Harris Hill Ski Jump, still a cleared field surrounded by forest and relatively undisturbed except for the looming jump ramp.

While there were a number of Romanichal (an Anglo-Romani subgroup from the British Isles) in North America at the time – most of them deported here unwillingly – “gypsy” was a term applied generally to anyone with a perceived migratory lifestyle. Most of the better-known Eastern European Romani emigrated to the US later in the 1800’s, primarily to urban areas. In Vermont, sociologists agree that the term “gypsy” was often a reference to the indigenous Abenaki and their kin, some of whom adopted an intinerant peddler version of their annual subsistence cycles. Returning to their traditional homelands in family groups with horse-drawn wagons, they sold baskets and woodenware, worked as day laborers, offered herbal treatments, and hunted and gathered as had their ancestors in the self-same places.

Dr. Grau’s 1860 “Gypsy Grounds” was and is one of these places. There are a number of historical newspaper accounts of gypsy visitations to Brattleboro in the 19th century, focusing on several specific localities. The area around the Retreat Farm and Meadows is documented as a known pre-European-Contact settlement site. The developing onslaught of war and colonization made sustainable Abenaki continuance untenable, driving the people and their culture out of sight and often far away. But the descendants of those forced off the land remembered their ties to the homelands and would return as they were able, living on the fringes of the growing towns and conducting their own affairs in a radically-changed social landscape. And those descendants are still here in Vermont, reclaiming their stories and reaffirming their connections to the land, at the place called Wantastegok and now known as Brattleboro.